What is at stake in the SASSA crisis? At one level we are dealing with an emergency, which is to ensure that grants supporting 17 million people - more than 30% of the population – in the most impoverished sections of South African society are paid out on 1 April 2017.
The level of poverty in the country, with its attendant hunger, malnutrition, lack of adequate basic needs like clean water and shelter, continues to wreak havoc with people’s health, life expectancy, performance in education and at work, where they do have work and are in school.
Social grants are post-apartheid South Africa’s way of addressing the social inequalities it inherited and which have increased since the onset of democracy.
Grants do not pretend to address broader structural questions relating to inequality and sustainable growth and development. But they are a way to rescue some people from absolute poverty. The reach of a single grant tends to go beyond the recipient and assist in the survival of a range of other dependents and households.
How the funding is disbursed has implications beyond the recipients because it is one of the biggest line items in the national budget, comprising R 170-billion in the 2017 budget. Consequently, the Treasury, in the custodial role of safeguarding the fiscus, needs to be meticulous in ensuring that these funds are properly spent.
In the context of high levels of corruption and the pillage of state funds, it is not surprising that the manner in which the contract to pay out grants was awarded to the current service provider, Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), elicited litigation from a losing bidder. As a result, the Constitutional Court declared in 2013 that the procurement process was irregular and the contract invalid.
SASSA and the Department of Social Development were given until the end of March 2017 to remedy these defects, but little seems to have been done to find an alternative service provider with the appropriate capacity, or to build up that capacity within SASSA. Minister Bathabile Dlamini and her department have been less than frank with parliament and the public and have demonstrated contempt for the obligation to be accountable. The delay in resolving this question has reached a crisis point with just weeks to go before the current contract with CPS expires.
Many believe that the crisis has been consciously manufactured by the Minister to ensure that only CPS would be in a strong enough position to continue the distribution of grants without interruption. This has also emboldened CPS, which is reported to have demanded a substantial rise in its fees for distribution, already worth R 10 billion.
In addition to the considerable amount it has gained from the contract, CPS has used its access to the database of grant recipients to market products from a range of its associated entities, performing deductions that many grantees say they have not authorised and which may well be illegal. (http://www.groundup.org.za/article/deductions-social-grants-how-it-works/). Even though there are regulations forbidding such deductions, they are still made.
At the same time there have been attempts to pin the blame for failure to resolve the crisis on the Treasury, which has insisted on ensuring that regular processes are followed that are in conformity with the law and the decision of the Constitutional Court. The Treasury is not a negotiating party, but rather charged with ensuring regularity. There have, nevertheless, been attempts to suggest that the Treasury has “passed the buck” and failed to engage in the negotiation process, of which it ought to be a part. (http://www.timeslive.co.za/sundaytimes/businesstimes/2017/03/05/Treasury-passes-the-buck-on-social-grants-crisis-deal1).
This is part of a wider process, on the part of some opposed to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, to depict the Treasury as an obstacle to social redistribution and transformation. The real concern is not transformation, but to open access to state funds on an irregular basis and in fact deplete what can be used for transformatory purposes.
Given the times in which we live, where much related to procurement has a price above an officially acknowledged price and every decision can be influenced, suspicion has been repeatedly voiced that the Minister may be deriving some benefit from favouring CPS. It may be part of the general trend of pillage that characterises the Zuma era, whether in the presidency itself or as alleged also in water affairs, the mineral and energy departments, ESKOM, Denel and many other departments of state or State owned enterprises.
That the president has not called Minister Dlamini to order or removed her, given that this disaster was foreseen for some time, may also be attributed to her role as president of the ANC Women’s League in advancing the campaign of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s preferred candidate for ANC president.
There is a strong possibility that the way the continued distribution of grants is ensured will be irregular, given that the Treasury will not bend on compliance with the ruling of the Constitutional Court. Alternatively, the Constitutional Court may, if approached, allow continuation of the CPS contract, subject to one or other condition, for a specific term and under close supervision. The latter would be the best solution perhaps, though it is hard to ensure from the judicial bench that an administrative task is performed and adequately monitored.
It appears the distribution of grants may be interrupted at the end of this month. If that happens, it will be a political crisis for the ANC because one of the achievements of post-apartheid South Africa under ANC rule has been to provide social grants. The ANC has taken great pains to make recipients believe that it is the ANC (and not the state) that is responsible for providing the grants and that without the ANC this would be endangered.
Any interruption in the process of delivery will be socially disastrous for those whose subsistence is compromised. But it will be politically disastrous for the ANC. If the ANC fails to deliver, that would be one more reason why it will lose votes in 2019.
It is astonishing that the ANC leadership, government as a whole and parliament have not acted with more vigour to stave off this crisis, purely for reasons of self-survival. Surely they can see that Bathabile Dlamini is driving them into a trap and that even if she pays a price they will all pay and possibly lose their positions as MPs and cabinet ministers if the ANC loses power.
At an ethical level, in some ways we are seeing a re-run of the complicity of the ANC as a whole in the Nkandla saga, with their failure to take responsibility in a situation that has the potential to wreak disaster on millions of people.
What, one may ask, has happened to the reports of bravery a few months ago when members of the ANC leadership called on President Zuma or the whole national leadership to resign? Where is the leadership that supposedly learnt from Nkandla that it had responsibilities under the constitution to hold the executive accountable? What has the portfolio committee for social development done over the last few years and what has parliament itself done, even now with disaster staring us in the face?
The Nkandla crisis saw MPs and ANC and SACP leaders endorse spending on the President’s private home, much of which was found by the Public Protector to have been diverted from poverty relief funding. The SASSA crisis is a more direct betrayal of the poor in that they are playing fast and loose with the very survival of millions of people – their real or metaphorical grandparents, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and their core constituency, the people on whose behalf the ANC has purported to act for decades.
What level of urgency do the ANC, its leaders in parliament and other structures attach to this question, when cabinet does not make time to deal with it last week, when the minister previously took a flight to Ethiopia to celebrate Dlamini-Zuma as then AU Commission Chair instead of accounting to parliamentary committees? What is parliament doing to hold her to account, to hold the government to account and ensure that the poor are not failed again?
Representation and betrayal
When all adults won the vote in 1994 there was an expectation that the notion of representation would be honoured, that MPs would see it as a trust through which they would re-present to the parliamentary chambers what their constituents wanted, or what was in their interests. In the case of the ANC particularly, this trust had been hard won over many decades where leaders had earned respect for their integrity and dedication.
Many of those in parliament and the cabinet today took their links to the masses seriously and paid a heavy price. Some were tortured and served long terms of imprisonment. Some faced great dangers in MK. They served with honour and their supporters expected that that sense of honour, that sense of integrity, that sense of trust would be upheld in parliament and in cabinet.
Many people used to refer to the freedom fighters, some of whom are on the benches of the ANC in parliament, as their sons and daughters. They were connected to the people, they took on their pain as their own and they had themselves experienced apartheid. Alas, what has happened now is a betrayal of that trust and a rupture of the bond that connected the ANC freedom fighters of the past with the people they now fail to represent.
The word betrayal is emotionally loaded, but appropriate. The organisation was trusted and loved by those who supported it. Their sense of loyalty to the organisation related to a sense of common purpose and shared values in striving for liberation from apartheid. They had no reason, then, to doubt the integrity of any person acting in the name of the ANC.
To betray a trust bestowed by those who are vulnerable is treachery. To profit from that treachery, as is likely if this deal with CPS is pushed through, is doubly treacherous.
There was a time when many of us would have given our lives for the ANC, for we believed it represented the best hope for our future. That this is not the case now is demonstrated by shameful and shameless conduct, the SASSA crisis being merely the most recent.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison will be reissued with a new foreword covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” and will be published by Jacana Media in the first half of this year. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner